How robots can aid learning – by showing their human side

Meet Nico – Nico is 58cm tall, he can walk around by himself and he can hold his own in a conversation. He’s one of a number of increasingly-sophisticated robots being developed to help children and young people to learn.

And, according to research which will be published at the London Festival of Learning this week, Nico can help pupils both to feel better and to achieve more – by behaving more sociably than other robots, and by changing his speech to fit more closely with that of the person he’s talking to.

A group of US-based researchers has conducted a series of experiments looking at whether robots can help children learn more effectively – if they can build a rapport with learners.

In one study with 72 pupils aged 10-13 year-olds, they looked at how the little changes in speech and behaviour that we make as we converse can make a difference to children’s learning. They compared the achievements of a group who worked with an emotionally and socially responsive version of Nico, with those of a version who wasn’t.

The pupils were asked to teach Nico to solve a problem – he challenged them to explain each step to him as he worked towards a solution.

For example, in one problem Nico wanted to go swimming –they had to help him to work out how much waterproof paint he will need to cover his body in order to swim safely.

The ‘social’ Nico used the names of his learning partners, he praised them and was polite to them. Using a specially-designed algorithm, he also moderated the pitch of his voice so that it more closely matched theirs.

Those children with whom Nico both behaved nicely and altered his speech patterns learned significantly better during these sessions.

These researchers ‘social’ robots, like Nico, can make a real difference – particularly with those pupils who need a little extra help.

Nicola Lubold, the lead researcher on the studies, says robots like Nico will never replace human teachers, though.

Should teachers be concerned that maybe we’re entering an age in which robots can take over their role? Certainly not,” she says. “But we have shown how helpers such as Nico can make a real difference – especially for those pupils who struggle to believe in their own ability to succeed.”


For more information please contact Nichola on (before June 22) or … (after June 22, when Nichola will be in the UK.) Or email

Or please call Fran Abrams at the Education Media Centre on 07939 262001.

Nichola Lubold will present two papers at the festival:

Automated Pitch Convergence Improves Learning in a Social, Teachable Robot for Middle School Mathematics by Nichola Lubold (Arizona State University) and Erin Walker (Arizona State University) Heather Pon-Barry (Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley MA), and Amy (Carnegie Mellon University).

Using Iterative Design to Create Efficacy-Building Social Experiences with a Teachable Robot by Nichola Lubold (Arizona State University)  Erin Walker (Arizona State University) Heather Pon-Barry (Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley MA), Amy (Carnegie Mellon University) and Yuliana Flores (University of Washington).

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